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Thursday, June 10, 1999 Published at 18:10 GMT 19:10 UK


Health

Townswomen support cannabis use

Anecdotal evidence suggests medical potential for cannabis

By the BBC's Lisa Costello

The campaign for doctors to be allowed to prescribe cannabis has received support from what might seem an unlikely section of the community - the Townswomen's Guild.


Lisa Costello reports from the Townswomen's Guild's AGM
The campaign is being led by the Labour MP Paul Flynn, whose bill recommending a change in the law, will be presented to the Commons for a second time next month.

Supporters are convinced that taking cannabis can significantly improve quality of life for people with cancer and multiple sclerosis.

And, on Wednesday, the Townswomen's Guild welcomed a prominent campaigner at its annual general meeting in the Royal Albert Hall in London.

Pain-relief

It is one of very few organisations to openly advocate the legalisation of cannabis for medicinal use.


[ image: Research is examining campaigners' claims]
Research is examining campaigners' claims
Campaigners claim that cannabis can provide relief from the debilitating symptoms of diseases such as multiple sclerosis and cancer.

But the government insists that extensive clinical trials must be carried out before the drug can be prescribed.

Although these trials are now under way after being approved in January, it could be many more years until the results are known and the relevant law passed.

Changing the law

Mr Flynn believes the government's caution is mis-placed.

"Cannabis has never produced any bad side effects," he said.

"What those who are using it are saying is 'carry on with the trials and get a purer cannabis, but in the mean time I'm in pain now'."

Mr Flynn's ammendment Bill proposing an immediate change in the law will have a second reading in the House of Commons next month.

In the meantime, the Townswomen's Guild is throwing its weight behind it.

Speaking from experience

At their AGM on Wednesday, members welcomed Clare Hodges from the Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics.

She was speaking for the second year running after members overwhelmingly voted in favour of legalising medicinal cannabis last year. Her experience of the benefits of cannabis are first hand.

"I've had multiple sclerosis for 17 years and after I'd had it for 10 years I began to find that I was getting very ill and I was getting no relief from the medicines," she said.

"Somebody told me about cannabis, and I tried it - I was at my wit's end."

Risking prosecution

The alliance estimates that about 10,000 people in the UK are using cannabis to relieve pain, muscle spasms and to regulate bladder control.

All of them are risking criminal prosecution, and two people have even been jailed for growing and smoking their own supply.

At the moment evidence to support the medicinal benefits of cannabis and their derivatives, cannabinoids are purely anecdotal. The lack of any known theraputic benefit was a large part of the decision to ban doctors from prescribing them in 1973.

But although campaigners welcome the latest research developments they want action.

Prescribing practice

Many doctors prescribe drugs on an 'unlicensed' basis. Dr William Notcutt is a consultant anaesthatist specialising in pain management at the James Pagett Hospital in Great Yarmouth.

"For some time now I have prescribed a synthetic cannabinoid for patients who have pain for which I have no other treatment," he said.

"I'm happy to do that for patients who have severe intractable pain - there is no other choice for them. But I'm not prepared to use it as the first treatment for any patient that walks into my clinic with pain."

Dr Notcutt says that taking a decision based on his knowledge of pharmacology and his medical experience over a number of years is exactly what surgeons and GPs do all the time.

It may be the only glimmer of hope for cancer patients and MS sufferers while the debate about legalising cannabis continues - even back among the ladies of the Townswomen's Guild at the Albert Hall.



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